Patti Gillenwater, CEO, Elinvar
Planning for a successful executive transition is a critical component of strategic planning for all organizations and is key to sustainability. This article series explores the steps and roles to assure successful transitions; challenges that arise and how to be adaptive; approaches when long-time and founding executives leave versus when the executive is no longer a good fit for the organization; when and how to use a search firm; and how to infuse equity throughout the transition process.
What does it mean to embed the lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) into your search process? For nonprofits, the benefits of hiring and supporting a diverse team are well known. The focus of this article will be on hiring the Executive Director or CEO of a nonprofit.
First, let’s acknowledge that as individuals, boards, and organizations, we are all on an EDI journey. Assess where you are in this journey and take the steps you need to create a culture that will support the success of a diverse leader before a leadership transition is taking place.
Depending on how you define diversity for your organization (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, age, gender, socio-economic status, lived experience that reflects those you serve, as examples), potential candidates will want to see that diversity reflected on your board.
If your board is lacking in diversity, you are not alone and you can easily take steps to remedy that. Provide EDI development for current board members to help you achieve a culture that will provide the foundation for your new leader’s transition and accomplishments.
Search Committee Formation
Select members of the search committee that represent the diversity of your organization, who have multicultural sensitivity, and knowledge of the position as the first step to launch your search process. If you have an EDI committee or leader in the organization, they should also be included and will be a great resource to guide your work of incorporating EDI into the entire process.
As you develop your job posting, review the language used to describe what you are looking for in the new leader so that it is gender neutral and inclusive. Consider the requirements that you are asking for and how they might impact the diversity of the candidate pool. It can be tempting to rely on past postings which can lead to asking for qualifications that may not be necessary for success in the position.
As you describe the position, include how EDI is incorporated in the work. Develop resources for postings that will reach a diverse audience (such as membership organizations and HBCUs) so that your postings are targeting an expanded pool of candidates.
Plan for extending the posting and outreach period if you have not achieved the qualified diverse candidates you were hoping for. They are out there – it may take longer to identify them if your networks do not reflect the diversity you are seeking.
Develop a matrix that clearly defines the experience needed for the position and gives you an objective tool to use when evaluating your applicants. Reviewing applicant’s resumes with an inclusive mindset is vital at this stage of your search.
Research suggests that information that could identify an applicant’s race should be removed so that implicit bias does not factor into this stage of decision making.
I believe in taking the opposite approach – working to be more inclusive of diverse candidates so that the interview can reveal their strengths and attributes that can lead to success in the role.
The first round of interviews should be conducted with consistency in mind. The same search committee members should be in all interviews and scripted questions that are aligned with the matrix must be consistently asked of all candidates. This approach allows you to learn comparable information which leads to a fair assessment for all candidates as you narrow your slate.
The search committee debrief discussion as you compare the candidates and decide who you want to spend more time with is a potential area for bias to come into play. For that reason, your facilitator must be able to listen for statements that may not be backed by facts and to ask for the person to provide their reasons for the comment(s). In addition, make sure that every committee member is being heard.
During follow-up interviews, you will want to learn more about specific areas of each candidate’s experience, and this is the stage where you can be less scripted.
As you decide on the next leader you want to hire for your nonprofit, be transparent with them regarding where the organization is on the EDI journey. No one expects perfection and being less than authentic has the potential to derail your transition.
Patti Gillenwater is CEO of Elinvar. With over 25 years of experience in executive search, leadership development, and board service, she advises leaders and boards on strategic planning, succession planning, board development, and organizational assessments as well as the selection of new leaders for their organizations. Patti understands the aspects of what is needed for an individual to succeed when joining a new organization and what an organization can achieve when exploring leadership changes. She leads nonprofit CEO searches in North Carolina and of the leaders the firm has placed in the past four years, over 72% identified as BIPOC or LGBTQ+.
Read other articles in this Successful Executive Transitions series: Embracing the Inevitable and Relationships with the Board and The Short-Term Plan and Succession Planning in a Time of Uncertainty and From the Desk of an Interim President/CEO